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Capturing the Northern Lights


Inspired by images of Iceland on a Landscape Forum based in the United States my thoughts turned to visiting that country in Winter and seeing for myself the wild and rugged landscape. High on my list of priorities was the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon with floating icebergs and the adjacent black sand beach covered with chunks of ice – ideal monochrome territory! Another attraction was the Northern Lights especially after seeing Andrew Lound’s excellent presentation ‘The Gates of Valhalla’ at the Club.

Icelandic Aurora 1.jpg

I booked a workshop run by an Icelandic based company - Wild Photography Holidays - ‘Northern Lights, Coast and Ice’ which seemed to fit the bill and which had excellent reviews including one from an English couple well known on the International Exhibition scene.

Arriving in Reykjavik towards the end of February I met up with the other Workshop members and after dinner the leaders mentioned that the weather forecast and aurora forecast were both good – was anyone interested in going out? Silly question, of course, and a couple of hours later we were tramping through the snow to a frozen lake about an hour’s drive out of Reykjavik.

The aurora is an electrical phenomenon, caused by interactions between the solar wind and the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The sun emits mass less photons that we see as light, but also emits out a real, physical, tangible wind of particles which moves at several hundred kilometres per second. When this wind reaches the Earth, it excites gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, eventually leading to the emission of light. The colours of the aurora are limited to green and red caused by oxygen, with the fainter blue and purple caused by nitrogen. Unlike the wispy shapes of the aurora it’s colours are narrow and precise

Just like the stars, the aurora is present during the day and the night, but as the sun sets it starts to become visible, being brightest near midnight when the orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind cause it to be strongest. The aurora is seen mostly in a ring centred roughly around the poles, where the solar wind is focused most intensely by the Earth’s magnetic field.

Aurora 1 Iceland.jpg

My first sight of the Northern Lights was mind blowing – an out of this world experience and one which I will never forget. The Northern Lights are constantly on the move so there was no time to stand and stare – we were there to capture the Lights! Below are some basic guide lines and do not forget to Google ‘Photographing the Northern Lights’ for more information.

  1. A wide angle lens, zoom or fixed focal length is to be recommended as the aurora can stretch across the entire sky. Use the fastest lens (f2.8 – 4) that you have available and use it at the widest aperture that produces an image of acceptable sharpness.

  2. Remove any filters that you may have on the lens as they can cause circular interference patterns.

  3. Shoot at the highest ISO setting that yields a image free from excessive noise – an ISO of 800 – 1600 is a good starting point.

  4. Autofocus generally doesn’t work in the dark so focus manually on the brightest star – setting the lens at infinity is rarely sufficiently accurate, especially as many lenses can focus beyond infinity or don’t have a focus distance scale. On a DSLR use live view at maximum magnification to achieve infinity focus.

  5. Set the shutter speed manually – most cameras, both DSLR’s and Micro 4/3rd’s generally have an exposure guide in manual mode. A 10 – 15 sec exposure is a good starting point, but do check the histogram!

  6. Shoot in RAW and turn off long exposure noise reduction as it has no effect in RAW and use noise reduction in software instead. If shooting JPEG this function should be enabled. 

  7. It goes without saying that the camera must be mounted on a sturdy tripod Use a remote release or the inbuilt 2 sec timer.

  8. It will inevitably be very cold where you are shooting so be careful not to breathe on any surface where you do not want ice crystals to form, i.e. lenses, viewfinders and screens.

  9. It is well worth practising the infinity focus at home before setting out on your trip.

The images shown here were captured on a Panasonic Lumix GX7 with a 12-35mm f2.8 lens set at 12mm (24mm equivalent for 35mm) and f2.8, manually focussed at infinity - 10 sec at ISO 1600.

Icelandic Aurora 2.jpg


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